By the end of my year of truant and pushing twelve, I’d begun to blossom as an artist at school. Just as well because at the end of my first year my academic ability remained steadfastly un-blossomed.
But things improved immensely when I made a breakthrough from fish and chip shop sales and began to sell paintings to masters at school.
I already lived in the art-room. I’d rather be up there at break then kicking some stupid ball around or worse being kicked around myself. So I had lots of time to do paintings.
To me the art-room was a haven and a world apart. The school was mainly about science and sport and the art room floated somewhere else, hardly connected to the rest of the school, or deemed of any real significance, by most of the boys and I suspect, most of the staff.
It was part of the school but apart like a fairy-castle, hung in the sky. For me it was a haven and a heaven.
The Art Master, Percy Beak, (because his name was Percy and he looked like a bird with a long thin nose), was a lovely gentle man. He reminded me of my grandpa. He had the most beautiful handwriting and a black shiny fountain pen with a gold nib. He’d also pull from his pocket a terrific black bone-handled penknife with a little silver shield on its’ side which I absolutely lusted after. It had a blade worn concave from decades of slicing sheets of paper into smaller pieces to make the paper go further.
A great honor in the school art world such as it was, was to be selected as the ‘Picture of the Week’. This was a picture, a piece of work drawing or a painting, selected by Percy each week and displayed in a glass-fronted frame at the junction on the steps up to the artroom and music-room, where everyone would see it.
My ‘Pictures of the Week’ caught the eye of two masters; Mr. Grimshaw, the music master, whose own talents were wasted on pimply thirteen year olds, and Mr. Kent the Chemistry master, who at the time was also our form master. Both of them commissioned me to do a painting.
That was fine but then actually asking one of your masters to pay for something was not the easiest thing in the world.
Mr. Grimshaw was pleased with the painting I produced for him and his wife, it was a large cityscape rendered in Indian-ink. He handed over ten pounds as soon as I delivered it, no problem. Ten quid was serious money! I think my dad only made about a fiver a week. But Mr. Kent my form master, embarrassed by the transaction, worked out a price for my painting whilst walking across the playground with me, slightly embarrassed tagging along.
I suppose, as he was my form master I was in no position to bargain. He didn’t ask me how much I wanted for the painting, instead he said,
“Right Sunderland, how much was the hardboard that you did the painting on?”
To which I replied, “I got it out of my dads’ shed sir, it cost nothing.” Having said that, I already knew I was on a loser
“How much was the paint?” He asked mid playground.
“About two shillings Sir” I replied head down as we dodged between the playground footballers.
“So how much time did you put into doing it?”
“Oh I did it in a day Sir.”
“Right, shall we say a shilling an hour?” He should have been a captain of industry.
“Yes sir.” I said.
So the miserable miser gave me ten shillings and said, “That’ll about cover it then”. And walked off with my lovely painting still carefully wrapped in brown paper. Ten bob, I’d been robbed, no wonder I hated chemistry as well as maths.
But the following day he came up to me again, a little sheepishly this time. We were in the corridor outside our classroom. He told me (in so many words) that his wife had been angry with him for being so tight-fisted and for not recognizing the artistic value of the original Junior Cezanne he’d bought her.
He told me, she’d loved it at first sight and immediately had him hang it above the fireplace in their lounge. So in the corridor with shaking fingers he poked into his well-worn wallet and coughed up a whole fiver! Yes! I was rich.
Fifteen pounds, I could buy myself a Mini with that. I didn’t have to be good at maths or physics or smelly chemistry or even rugby, I just had to be good at what I loved. There was a future in making an exhibition of myself, or at least my work.
Still, Mr. Kent got his own back, because the rotter recommended I stay down in the same class at the same level for a repeat year, because I’d done so badly at everything else except art. I didn’t get well represented as an artist or an accomplished junior incognito artist from my first year on. I got badly represented as not doing well in the things I was no good at.
Being kept down a year was a terrible thing to do to a chap on the cusp of his teenage life. I would be thirteen when I finished, as if life wasn’t awful enough. It was like being buried alive. I lost my few friends and all my peers as they progressed up the school, whilst I had to do the whole year all over again.
Tougher still at the start of the new school year I had to worm my way into the society of a new class of boys, all a year younger than me. A whole class who knew I’d been kept down for being thick or lazy or both. It was just terrible.
If the stigma of my situation wasn’t bad enough at school an unhappy home-life had taken a miserable turn for the worse.
I have never been able to work out what made my father the way he was. He died in his mid sixties. I’d never known him happy, especially not with my mother, who he’d married shortly after coming home from Burma after the war. He was the same with us, my younger sister and I, cold, distant, bad tempered and often violent especially after he’d had a few drinks.
My sister and I weren’t bad kids, we’d have loved to be closer to him and have a dad. But from the outset, married life for my mum had been a living hell. It was like living with a live grenade, he could explode at any time.
My first memory as a child, I must have been still a toddler, is being picked up by the hair and thrown across the living room of our terrace house all the way over the sofa. I remember lying still under the piano, too terrified to scream looking up at a goldfish in a bowl looking down at me, with the cold linoleum under my face while he ranted away and mum fought to stop him from grabbing me again. In those blind rages he was capable of anything.
He continued to be violent towards me all my childhood. I’m not talking about the occasional corrective slap but being beaten up. My sister Ann he never touched thank-God, I think I would have killed him when I got older. As it was there were several times when I had to fight him off my mum after he’d come home drunk from the pub.
Mum had tried to leave him several times. Once shortly after I’d gone up into senior school. We managed to stay away for a short while and went to live with my grandparents in their council house. The house was small and life was cramped but they knew what hell ‘home life’ was for us and gladly took us in.
Divorce was very difficult in those days, not as easy to get as now, and there was no guarantee that mum would have got custody of my sister and I.
He promised he’d change his ways if we’d only go back.
I remember taking the bus to see him, mum had taken his letter to heart but had doubts and wanted to see him in person before she made up her mind.
I remember being there with him in the lounge, the bungalow felt strangely empty of life. I remember staring at photos of mum and us. He’d arranged the photo-frames on top of the mantelpiece.
They sat there and talked about patching things up. He swore he would be better, but I was as nervous as a kitten and didn’t want to go back. But we did.
It was the worst thing we could have done. Within just a couple of days he’d turned back into an evil raving maniac. Mum was trapped and she knew it, he knew it, and she couldn’t leave us. It’s never surprised me that she met someone else.
Trevor, the man she met, lived in our village and worked in the same factory as mum. The factory ‘Robertsons’, made rolling stock for the railways, their big sprawling plant was across the river. He was a few years younger than her, he was the cocky star of the village cricket team and the village “Jack the Lad”. He’d lived there all his life in a terrace house down near the river, a tough community unto itself and in his own way so was he.
They’d met one morning as they walked the half-mile or so down the lane which ran across the fields to the canal, which they had to cross to get to work. The lane first led to a hump-back bridge across the dark river and the blacker chemical polluted canal. Mum was a secretary and Trevor worked in accounts. He was in his late twenties, bright, funny, smart, handsome and as they discovered as unhappy in his marriage as mum was in hers.
They found each other in the summer of 1961. Mum, my sister and I were trapped sharing my mum’s living hell. Trevor became our escape route and we became his.
She’d realized that for their affair to work she had to have us kids along with her, and practically we all had to be in on the secret. So she arranged to introduce us, me first. It was a wet and dark night. He waited under the bus-station clock. Mum met me at the gates to the Cathedral after choir practice.
I remember seeing him first under the neon light.
She told me on the short walk to the bus station where we usually caught the bus home, that she wanted me to meet a new friend of hers. A new ‘friend’ I wasn’t stupid, I knew what was going on, I only had to look at her face as we crossed the road- the truth was in the way she lit up when she saw him.
He shook my hand, the way a full-grown man does with a boy, and made me laugh straight away.
As our hidden other life developed from that night on, he became my secret father. And he’s continued to help me through my life as my real dad might have done and I can never thank-him enough. And now in his late seventies hes finally my legitimate step-father.
(42 years later after that night they got married- how that happened is a magical story- but for another time.)
For mum it was us first, and with him it was all of us or nothing. But their affair, really our affair, was a big and dangerous secret to keep. I was three years older than my sister Ann and I was worried that at only eight, when we she wouldn’t understand what was going on or keep the secret. But she did, she asked me a couple of years ago, how did I think keeping this lie effect us as we developed as people. I said it had only shown me the enduring power of love.
We started living a shadowy part-time life with Trevor, a real incognito world, snatching time in the park at the weekends and summer evenings and before work and school time early on every weekday mornings. Then we met all four of us at the back of the ‘Shady Nook’ coffee bar, possibly the least romantic place in the world.
We’d sit, half hidden under the cover of a fake tree decorated with gaudy imitation birds. Mum and him would snatch a few minutes together, before the day proper began and we’d all pretend we were a family.
Meanwhile only half a mile away dad was opening up the Builders Merchants Yard that he managed.
If our secret had come out Trevor, by the laws of the day Treveor could have been prosecuted for ‘enticement’ of another man’s wife. But the truth was, we didn’t need much enticement.
The coffe bar was grim, And even in summer condensation ran down the windows, a steamy veil hiding us from view. And the espresso machine screamed in steamy clouds as it frothed up the coffe, the sound hid our conversation from curious ears.
But Wakefield was a small town. It was only a matter of time before someone found us out, and because of that it was stressful to being all together, I guess we were hiding in plain sight with all it’s dangers.
On another level, we were like spies working on a plot, but constantly afraid of detection. It was my incognito truant life all over again, only this time we were all in disguise.
And it wasn’t as though those secret daily minutes were always happy, they weren’t. Mum and Trevor had all kinds of issues and adult frustrations not unreasonably in the circumstances and there were many days when we just all sat, looking into the weak coffee, Ann and I sneaking sugar cube, and drawing in the frothy spills on the formica table.
Often after he’d left the coffee bar (we didn’t all leave together), mum would turn to me and say “He’s so damn brussen!” Meaning, well “brussen” like it sounds, there’s no other word for it.
I didn’t really mind this daily charade. It was exciting in it’s own way. I did ‘incognito’ really well and I had more experience at being a shadow then they had.
Although there was often tension between the grown ups, Trevor loved us as nuch as he loved my mum. We knew he was genuine and we saw mum happy in a way we hadn’t seen before, it was like a light had been switched on in her. A happiness ironicall she couldn’t let show at home until Dad was out to the pub. It was then when Trevor rang. He’d go to his local chip shop and jump in the phone box on the way. Then often- even on the phone, there’dbe the same long silences between them. Mum would just5 stand there ijn the hall and I would sit on the steps and watch her.
Ironically, as a ‘secret family’ we spent most Saturday afternoons on the back-row of the same Playhouse Cinema where I’d been such a regular patron not long before, only now up in the balcony on the back-row where the gropers and cuddlers hung out. But I couldn’t let them share my personal irony, even though now we were all playing truant! Trouble was the usherettes knew me and would smile.
Though we grabbed these happy hours all togethert, at home the violence and rows continued.
But now mum could take it, and so could I.
He could knock me for six, but knowing I’d another ‘dad’ who wanted to share things and time with me, I always got up and faced him again, only to be knocked down once more. When it was like that I retreated to the places inside where he couldn’t touch me But as I reached puberty and began to fill out, I dared look him in the eye when I stood up again and in my spirit didn’t retreat. And I knew that he knew what was happening inside me. I knew he recognized that look in my eye that said, “beware you bastard, one day this worm is going to turn”. For now he could beat me into submission, but it was only a matter of time.
(copyright John Sunderland 2009)
Installment sixteen of my autobiographical journey-painful times in this installment and a new happiness found.